Russia’s Mountain Jews eager to get out

MOSCOW, Feb. 29 (JTA) — As Russian troops inexorably push Chechen separatist rebels deeper toward the border with the former Soviet republic of Georgia, Western protests are mounting against the Russian army’s crimes against civilians.

But Jews in the Caucasus region appear to be overwhelmingly supportive of Russia’s military solution.

“I think, and many of our people here think, that the military operation has to be accomplished. Only then are we going to have a stable situation in the region,” said Svetlana Danilova, a Jewish community leader in the city of Nalchik.

Boris Shubayev, who works for the Jewish Agency for Israel in Nalchik, said his mother and sister gave home-made pirogen, or Russian-style dumplings, to Russian soldiers passing through town on their way to the front. “We want them to finish the Chechen rebels. There is no other way out.”

“We are not against the Chechen people,” he added apologetically. “My family lived in Chechnya and had always been friendly with the Chechens. When Stalin deported the Chechens in 1944, many of them left their houses to their Jewish neighbors and knew that not a single cushion on the bed would be touched. Now everything has changed.”

Shubayev and other Mountain Jews here say the Chechen war and the atrocities committed by the Chechens and other “ethnic gangs,” including the kidnapping of Jews, has destroyed the tenuous multicultural balance that has served as the underlying fabric of life in this region.

The first Mountain Jews, who currently constitute more than 50 percent of the roughly 25,000 Jews of the North Caucasus, came from Persia to the North Caucasus not later than the eighth century. They spoke a sort of “Persian Yiddish,” a Farsi dialect with a heavy mixture of Hebrew.

Living for many centuries as an enclave surrounded by Muslims and Christians, this oldest Jewish community in Russia managed to maintain its identity and keep stable relations with its neighbors.

Today many are concentrated in the cities of Derbent, Makhachkala and Buynaksk in the Republic of Dagestan, where the Jewish population has diminished from 50,000 to fewer then 10,000 during the past 10 years. Most of the Jews who have left, many of whom fled before the first Russian-Chechen war in 1996, have emigrated to Israel or America, or moved to Moscow.

Despite their drastically diminished numbers, the Mountain Jews in Dagestan and elsewhere in the North Caucasus maintained their communities — and until recently many of them intended to stay on.

But the increased interethnic tension and the number of kidnappings and acts of violence — which have rapidly spread to the neighboring republics and even to Moscow — have convinced many of the remaining Jews to leave.

Roman Ashurov, 61, had intended to remain in Nalchik, even though his children had already moved to Israel.

Then he was kidnapped by Chechen gangs who believed that the international Jewish community and Israel would be willing to pay dearly for Jewish captives.

Recently released after having spent a year in captivity, he is physically and emotionally fragile and reluctant to speak, but his relatives told JTA that female members of the gang had mutilated his genitalia.

Ashurov, who urgently needs an operation, is planning to move to Israel soon.

Fewer than 50 Jews are being held hostage, but as knowledge about each case spreads, more Jews are tempted to leave.

The war is also creating a refugee problem — and Jewish organizations in Russia and the West have recently launched a fund-raising campaign to aid both Jewish and non-Jewish refugees fleeing Russian troops.

Martin Horowitz, director of the Jewish Community Development Fund in Russia and Ukraine, said 400 Jewish refugees have been identified by the Russian Jewish Congress.

But data from Jewish sources in the North Caucasus cities shows that the actual number of Jewish refugees — Jews who fled the current fighting or persecution in Chechnya — is probably fewer than 100.

But there are likely thousands of non-refugee Jews who want to leave.

Karen Gurshumov, one of the leaders of the Dagestani Jewish community, is disappointed with the aid programs, with the exception of the Chesed social service programs run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Gurshumov and other Jewish activists say the real problem is the deplorable situation of thousands of “non-refugee” Jewish families, who can’t sell their apartments or houses and don’t want to leave without any money at all.

The economy of the region is poor, and many people are unemployed.

Yeshsya Abramov, a Moscow-based RJC leader who is in charge of helping Caucasian Jews who want to resettle elsewhere, says he is negotiating with municipal authorities to acquire an apartment for 300 families near Moscow . Some 30 percent of the apartments, he says, will be given to non-Jewish refugee families.

But Abramov says he expects an evacuation of the most of the Jews from the North Caucasus.

“Seventy percent of Jews.,” says Abramov, would “leave immediately if they had the opportunity to sell their homes.”

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